2007 July 17 Tuesday
Charles Murray Wants To Replace SAT

Charles Murray wants to abolish the core SAT and substitute results from the College Board's achievement tests.

Getting rid of the SAT will destroy the coaching industry as we know it. Coaching for the SAT is seen as the teaching of tricks and strategies—a species of cheating—not as supplementary education. The retooled coaching industry will focus on the achievement tests, but insofar as the offerings consist of cram courses for tests in topics such as U.S. history or chemistry, its taint will be reduced.

Yes, the achievement tests are more constructive. But Murray does not go far enough. The Advanced Placement tests are even more constructive because they yield college credits. What we need is a massive increase in the ability of students to earn college credits without ever stepping foot on a bricks-and-mortar college campus.

Let students watch high resolution video lectures and take practice tests on the web for most undergraduate courses. Let them show up in a proctored room once a month to take tests in any subjects where they think they've learned enough to earn college credits. This would be cheaper and much more open to the lower classes, to the bright kids born on the wrong side of the proverbial tracks.

While Murray thinks the SAT is highly accurate and hard to game he thinks a widespread belief that upper class kids can get trained for it reduces its legitimacy.

A low-income student shut out of opportunity for an SAT coaching school has the sense of being shut out of mysteries. Being shut out of a cram course is less daunting. Students know that they can study for a history or chemistry exam on their own. A coaching industry that teaches content along with test-taking techniques will have the additional advantage of being much better pedagogically—at least the students who take the coaching courses will be spending some of their time learning history or chemistry.

The lower or even just middle income students have the sense of being shut out of a lot more than the mysteries of SAT coaching schools. In the world of higher education the use of the SAT is a symptom of a much larger problem. We need to move away from the extremely expensive elite school model and move toward much more accessible educational materials.

Murray says a greater emphasis on achievement tests will cause a bigger focus on the quality of high schools.

The substitution of achievement tests for the SAT will put a spotlight on the quality of the local high school’s curriculum. If achievement test scores are getting all of the parents’ attention in the college admissions process, the courses that prepare for those achievement tests will get more of their attention as well, and the pressure for those courses to improve will increase.

I think the spotlight should shift away from high schools and colleges and toward ways to empower individuals to learn as much as they want and can handle.

In spite of co-authoring The Bell Curve Murray imagines there's some way to reduce the role of cognitive status symbols in American society.

The final benefit of getting rid of the SAT is the hardest to describe but is probably the most important. By getting rid of the SAT, we would be getting rid of a totem for members of the cognitive elite.

But totems for signaling higher intelligence help to make the labor market much more efficient and accurate. We need ways for employers to identify job applicants who are smart enough to do the most cognitively demanding jobs.

Education costs too much. Way too much. That is a bigger obstacle than differences in SAT test scores. Educational institutions are also highly inconvenient. You have to set aside 3 months of your life to take some semester-length courses and have to do so where a college is located that offers what you want and that will accept you. You can't choose when the 3 month period starts.

We need to replace the education system that uses the SAT rather than replace the SAT.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2007 July 17 09:21 PM  Education

Mensarefugee said at July 18, 2007 12:22 AM:

Brilliant Post!

You always have your eye on the goal Randall.

There was a lot wrong with Murray's article. And I think youve got a grasp of a very basic part of what was missing.

John S Bolton said at July 18, 2007 5:08 AM:

Murray should not appear to cower before the menace of destructive status competition.
For each point of IQ differential between two groups, the lower one has greater incentive to try to shift status competition towards ruthless violence.
There's a lack of loyalty to the advancement of civilization in saying move away from merit sytems;
the progress of knowledge requires that we continue with the most abstract merit determinations, not pretend that memorizing specific subject knowledge can be just as good as intelligence.
Appeasing the envious feelings of the low will embolden them in their impulses to move status competition
down to a contest in ever-more-ruthless violence, where they have a chance to come out on top.
Murray's recommendation is about image more than substance;
it is about prestige as between groups.
Is he hoping to win over some liberals or leftists, of the sort who denounced him for years
in quite vitriolic terms, just for mentioning genetic differences of significance between races and classes?
He shouldn't bother with that worthless quest for the plastic grail, but use his power to spark controversy, to rub the faces of
the disadvantaged minorities in the facts, the more they howl, the better.

Wolf-Dog said at July 18, 2007 5:52 AM:

The "knowledge based" Achievement Tests can also be designed in such a way that they also measure abstract intelligence. In fact, the repertoire of the SAT and the aptitude part of the GRE is quite narrow in comparison to the repertoire in the Acthievement Tests. It is not true that all questions in the Achievement Tests are just about facts and memory answers. Maybe only about half the questions are just about facts, and the rest are difficult questions that involve problem solving (not just math and science, but even in social sciences and literature). In fact, probably half of the SAT questions are also very easy memory questions that get solved by just applying a general formula without any effort to solve a complex problem. But if you only answer 50 % of the questions in the aptitude part of the SAT, or the Achievement Tests, you would get a rather mediocre score. There is no way you can get a high score by not answering a very high percentage of the questions correctly, and this can only be done by solving many of the more difficult questions in the second half of the exam, both in SAT and in Achievement Tests.

Half Sigma said at July 18, 2007 8:48 AM:

I examined the History and World History tests on my blog. Most of the questions require the use of logic to figure out which answer makes the most sense. The tight time limit requires fast reading and thinking, increasing the g-loading of the tests.

Furthermore, the "Literature" test is just a reading comprehension test, almost the same as the verbal portion of the SAT. And the Math Level 1 test is not very different from the math section of the SAT. Those two tests alone could easily substitute for the SAT.

Randall Parker said at July 18, 2007 8:35 PM:


I think Murray feels too much kinship with academics. Academia is a means to a few ends, not an end in itself.

In fact, I'll go further: Academia lures too many bright minds away from more productive and useful work in the private sector. Not only do we pay a lot to go to college. But our money pulls professors away from productive work that would deliver much bigger benefits to us if only they shifted their thinking toward development of new products and services.

Granted, academia plays an important role in generating new knowledge. But most academics generate little or no valuable knowledge.

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